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Superintendent OK'd Controversial Defense In Chappaqua Sex-Abuse Lawsuit

Lyn McKay
Lyn McKay Photo Credit: Tom Auchterlonie

CHAPPAQUA, N.Y. -- Chappaqua Superintendent Lyn McKay said she was the one who signed off on a controversial legal defense in a lawsuit against the school district pertaining to sex-abuse allegations against a former teacher.

McKay made the disclosure at Tuesday's school board meeting.

McKay said that the decision to do so was because of legal advice from two law firms: the district's regular counsel of four decades, Shaw, Perelson, May & Lambert, as well as Henderson & Brennan, a White Plains firm assigned to the district by its liability insurance company.

The legal defense, which was part of a broader verified answer to the lawsuit, blamed three student sex-abuse accusers for purposes of injuries incurred, arguing that negligence on their part contributed to possible damages. It was submitted to state supreme court in July, which was in response to a lawsuit filed in May on behalf of three student accusers who allege abuse from former drama teacher Christopher Schraufnagel.

Three more student accusers have submitted requests in state supreme court to be able to file their own lawsuits, while another accuser filed a federal suit this week. In total, there are now seven civil accusers.

McKay also said that she does not personally blame the students.

“I would never blame a student for anything,” she said in response to a community member's question.

Previous coverage regarding Schraufnagel can be read here.

The argument stoked a firestorm in town, as infuriated residents vented over the usage of it. The usage of the defense also resulted in more media coverage of the abuse scandal, and has been rebuked by Chappaqua school board members who said they were not told about it prior to filing.

McKay said that she requested in writing that the insurance-hired attorney consult with the district's regular law firm, which was meant to be a procedural safe guard. With the exception of the document containing the defense, McKay explained, most documents involving Schraufnagel-related litigation have been filed without involvement from the district.

The way in which the verified answer was handled, McKay said, is common in civil cases and not unique to Chappaqua.

“This is a part of a typical response.”

McKay's disclosures were given in response to questions asked by residents Lynne Lambert and Barbara Buxbaum, who pressed for answers about the matter during public comment at Tuesday's school board meeting.

The way in which the matter was handled, McKay said, stems from a term in New York State insurance law called comparative negligence. In essence - McKay qualified her reply by noting it is merely what she has been told as a non-lawyer - insurance attorneys are required to include such arguments and that if they do not at the current legal juncture, then they can't raise them in the future.

In also expressing her personal dislike of the strategy, McKay called the wording of the defense "awful."

Jay Wrona, who is general counsel for the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA), told New York Magazine for a lengthy profile on the Schraufnagel matter that such replies are frequent.

Wrona told the publication that school districts issue such replies as “a boilerplate thing to protect the taxpayers ultimately,”

Wrona also told New York Magazine, “It’s not that they’re saying the kid asked for it, but whatever damages there were to students and parents, maybe they contributed to the damages.”

School board member Jeffrey Mester, who is among those disavowing the wording of the defense, called it a "mistake" and that the district could have legally protected itself differently.

School board President Alyson Gardner, who expressed her displeasure with the verbiage of the defense, said that going forward the board has asked to be able to see documents pertaining to the Schraufnagel litigation.

Enraged residents repeatedly blasted McKay and board members for how Schraufnagel has been dealt with historically. For example, Will Wedge called for McKay and the board members to step down.

“This board and this administration have waited that long to get their heads out of the sand," he said.

Board member Karen Visser described how Schraufnagel was perceived by people in the community prior to the sex-abuse allegations coming to light, noting that he was a "beloved teacher." The description drew frustrated groans from the audience.

On the matter of why Schraufnagel was employed for years before abuse claims surfaced in 2015, Visser described the former drama educator as “very smart," "very sneaky," and "cunning.”

In reply, Wedge said he is sure that there were people in the district "who knew what was going on and they didn't say anything, they looked the other way."

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